August marked the first time our whole network, which is spread across North Dakota, was able to gather in person in over FIVE HUNDRED days. Business advisors and staff from our eight ND SBDC service centers, our two PTAC centers, and our VBOC of the Dakotas program all traveled to Watford City for two days of professional development and our Network Staff Q3 Quarterly meeting.
The chance to gather and collaborate with colleagues in person once again is special, but these meetings are always exciting as they are one of the few times our business advisors and staff are all in the same (non-virtual) room. From Williston to Fargo, to Devils Lake, to Bowman, our ND SBDC service centers and advisors are geographically dispersed with the goal of being available to as many North Dakotans as possible. But we have an exciting new project on the way to make ND SBDC services more accessible to clients than ever before.
The level of accessibility of our service centers is something we pride ourselves on as a network. Our centers are strategically placed throughout the state so that meeting in person with one of our business advisors is possible for all entrepreneurs and business owners. We acknowledge, however, that sometimes it’s difficult for clients to use part of their workday to drive to one of our centers for an advising session. Before the pandemic, our advisors worked to ease that strain by driving to North Dakota’s more rural communities to meet and connect with old, new, and potential clients. And while we are back to traveling to clients more frequently again, we aren’t stopping there. We constantly strive to make our network more accessible which is why we are pursuing an exciting new project – virtual service centers.
As we work to reduce barriers to access, the ND SBDC network has strategically added more virtual learning and engagement opportunities, now to include virtual service centers. Virtual service centers are an initiative that other SBDCs around the nation have already successfully implemented in different ways.
Kansas SBDC established five rural “kiosks” early this year in collaboration with local partners. These kiosks include technology, most importantly laptops, and signage for use by potential and existing clients. They are placed within partner offices in areas of the state that aren’t located close to a physical service center.
Iowa SBDC used some of their CARES funds to add ten portable kiosks to their state’s toolbelt. These kiosks are touchscreen and contain simple programming that describes SBDC services and assists users to either register as a client or further explore the program’s website. While some of these portable kiosks will be permanently located, one will be kept in Iowa’s Secretary of State’s office for example, others will be transported to various areas of service.
Virtual service centers for ND SBDC will be deployed in partnership with community partners around the state in rural communities. Within these service centers, access to our advisors and services will be virtual but the service centers themselves will be physical spaces located within those community partners’ offices where clients can take virtual meetings and work through the next steps for their venture. The spaces will be equipped with the technology and equipment, a full computer set up with video-conferencing technology, to make these advising opportunities available to all existing and potential clients. The ND SBDC is aware that not all clients possess the technology, access to the internet, or skills necessary to utilize our advising services in an increasing digital marketplace. Therefore, these virtual service centers will provide not only advising locations but also workstations and learning tools for developing clients’ technology literacy and skills.
As we work to make the ND SBDC accessible, we will aim to add more virtual service centers, but we launch this initiative with a few locations we are very excited about:
- New Town, within the New Town City Auditors Office
- Oakes, within the Growing Small Towns Co-Working Space
- Beulah, tbd: City Hall, or CVB
Through these virtual service centers, ND SBDC advisors will provide the same level of quality business advising that a client would receive if they had driven to one of our physical locations. The geographic reach of the ND SBDC has always been something the network is vigilant of as we strive to serve all 53 counties in our state. We look forward to sharing our clients’ experiences with our new virtual centers with you as we explore and expand this new delivery method!
Tiffany Ford, State Director
And all the Staff of the ND Small Business Development